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Chitravati: The painful story of pollution of a holy river
The wheel of time turns on...
The wheel of time is relentless in its movement. Nothing ever slows it down; nothing ever speeds it up. It goes on turning constantly, crushing anything that attempts to impede its movement; stopping anything that attempts to enhance its movement. It moves in a single direction only - from the past towards the future via the present. And therein it presents a small window of opportunity for those who wish to create or achieve anything - the present.
Because, everything said and done, the wheel of time could be redirected in a new direction in the present!
For those that are pondering about the reason for this outpouring on time, it will become evident in due course of time! Presently, it will suffice to say that there is a terrible pothole, a hurdle which the wheel of time is rolling through as far as people who love Puttaparthi in general and the river Chitravati in specific are concerned, and it is time to take a ‘redirecting’ action.
But before we go into that, it is time to share and enjoy some pleasant memories which are getting invoked from within me. I have not lived these memories - I have just read about them. However, the images have come so alive from those readings that I feel as if I have lived through them. And yes! These are images from Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba’s youth and His visits to the Chitravati river.
The river Chitravati has its origin in the Nandi Hills which come near Chikballapur, 50 kilometers from Bangalore. Nobody knows how exactly Chitravati ends her life at the sea for it has been years, nay decades, since she has been in her former gushing self. She flows into the Cuddapah district of Andhra Pradesh in spite of being dammed at the border of the state of Karnataka, near Bagepalli. All her glory is only because of her association with Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba.
The early days
As recounted by Mrs Vijayamma from Kuppam in her book Anyathaa Sharanam Naasthi, the years of Swami in His twenties were so wonderful and fulfilling as far as devotees were concerned. There were about a handful of devotees then. Hats off to these people who endured severe criticism from the villagers and and other people and still held on to Swami as their God. Naturally, He rewarded such strong faith and intense love with beautifully divine experiences.
Swami’s bed those days had been shaped as the Adi Sesha, the mighty serpent on which Lord Vishnu rests in His abode, Vaikunta. In the morning, the devotees would walk to His door, enter the room and sing the Suprabhatam, a prayer meant to awaken divinity, within and outside too! Swami would wake up to the chants of the Suprabhatam. It must be mentioned here that the opening stanza of the Sri Sathya Sai Suprabhatam too has been inspired by the river Chitravati and it pans out as,
Chitravati Thata Vishaala Sushantha Soudhe.
It is said that the author, Sri.Tirumalachar, wrote the same deriving inspiration on the banks of the holy river.
Till breakfast at 8am, it would be bhajans or devotional songs composed by Surdas or Meerabai. At times, Swami would regale them with a story. After breakfast, the devotees would again assemble for a ‘chat’ session wherein Swami would offer insights into life liberally mixed with humor, stories and pulling of the leg. Then, there would be bhajans from eleven to two in the afternoon! Lunch would follow and conclude in the divine company at about 3:30pm. The highlight of the day with Swami in the late 40s and early 50s would invariably be the visit to the river Chitravati.
At exactly 4pm, Swami would announce,
“We are starting! C’mon everybody.”
At that point, people would simply stop whatever they were doing and follow Him to the mother, the river Chitravati. Once on the sands of Chitravati, the possibilities were endless. It was the divine will that converted this river bed into a venue of many of the Lord’s leelas or sport. Baba would be on the Chitravati sands from 4pm till 8pm on a daily basis!
Bhagawantham experiences Bhagawan
He would plunge His hand into the sands and pull out tasty sweets and savouries, distributing them to the 30-40 people who had gathered around. The specialty was that these tasty snacks would not have even a grain of sand sticking to them! At other times, He would materialize idols of Gods and rosary beads for the devotees to treasure, cherish and worship.
On one occasion, many years later, Dr. Bhagawantham, former Scientific Advisor to the Defence Ministry of India and former Vice Chancellor of two universities could not restrain his scientific curiosity. He was often plagued with the doubts as to whether someone was hiding these objects beforehand in the sands. On this occasion, it was Dr.Bhagawantham who chose a spot where they would sit down on the Chitravati sands. The year was 1959.
After the scientist had chosen an area and the party was seated on the sands, Baba began to tease the doctor a little; he made fun of the complacent "all-knowing" attitude of many men of science, and deplored their ignorance of or indifference to the ancient wisdom to be found in the great Hindu scriptures. The doctor's pride was stung. He retorted that not all scientists were of this materialistic outlook. He himself, as an example, had a family tradition of Sanskrit learning and a deep interest in the spiritual classics of India. Then in an endeavour to establish the bona fides of his scientific colleagues he told Baba that when Oppenheimer, after exploding the first atom bomb, was asked by the press representatives what his reactions were, he replied by quoting a verse from the Bhagavad Gita, thus showing that he was a student of that great work.
"Would you like a copy of the Bhagavad Gita?"
Baba asked him suddenly, scooping up a handful of sand as he spoke.
"Here it is," he continued, "hold out your hands."
Bhagawantham cupped his hands to catch the sand as Baba dropped it into them. But when it reached the scientist's waiting palms, it was no longer the golden sand of the Chitravati. It was a red-covered book. Opening it in stunned silence, the doctor found that it was a copy of the Bhagavad Gita printed in Telugu script. Baba remarked that he could have presented the doctor with one printed in Sanskrit, but as the latter read Sanskrit script with some difficulty, Baba had given him one in Telugu, Dr. Bhagawantham's native tongue. Bhagawantham had not mentioned his limited proficiency in Sanskrit; this was something that Baba just knew. As soon as he could, Bhagawantham examined this miraculously produced volume closely. It appeared to be quite new and was well printed, but where? The names of printer and publisher, always given in the normal way, were nowhere to be found.
(as recorded in Howard Murphet’s - Sai Baba:Man of Miracles.)
Mrs. Nagamani Pourniya, from Bangalore, is the widow of a Government District Transport Officer and the mother of the popular novelist Kamala Taylor, who is married to an Englishman and lives in England. Mrs.Nagamani first met Sai Baba in 1945 and spent many long periods at his ashram. Many have described Swami’s miraculous production of figures - usually statuettes of Hindu or other gods - from the sands. But Mrs.Nagamani writes that on one occasion when a party went with Baba to the sands of the Chitravati river she saw idols rising up out of the sand themselves. Baba simply scraped away a little sand to reveal the top of the head, then the figure itself began to rise, as if driven up by some power beneath.First, she said, came a figure of Siva, then his consort Parvati, and then a lingam. As each rose a few inches above the sand Baba pulled it out and threw it quickly to one side. This was because the objects were made of metal and were quite hot - too hot to hold for more than a second. After they had cooled, he took them back to the old Mandir for puja (ritualistic worship).
The writer could go on and on with such wonders and miracles that the sweet young Sai performed on the banks of the river Chitravati. But in doing so, he would be failing in his duty. The purpose for which the writing was started has to be completed.
With the movement of the wheel of time, the river Chitravati was visited less and less by Baba till finally, trips to the Chitravati were completely stopped. However, the river continued to mother the thousands of devotees of Baba who visited Puttaparthi. She did so till recent times when her capacity to support the devotees of the Lord seem to have been brutally cut away by gross negligence and brutal cruelty - intentional and unintentional.
As my heart longs for the erstwhile glory of the river Chitravati, it cries out terribly at the pathetic state of the river today. What used to be the divine playground, home of miracles galore and the Lord’s host for 4 hours every day has today turned into a garbage dump, a pigsty, a detergent-filled pool for washing clothes, a crematorium, an outlet for the town’s drainage water and a cesspool of unhealthy plants, plastic and rubbish! Wiping the tears off my eyes, I post these pictures for, don’t they say, that a picture speaks a thousand words?
Painful pictures indeed but I shall place my trust in the maxim that there is no gain without pain. The wheel of time has brought us presently to this state. What we do now to alter its course will determine the course of a holy river and the course of history of Puttaparthi. But what is it that can be done? Action is required along multi-dimensional fronts from awareness to action, from education of the locals to evoking the attention of neighboring villages, from governmental-body action to local community action, from personal hygiene to public sanitation and much more. And there are many ‘modern’ problems too. With Puttaparthi moving from a haven of nature with jungles towards a modern concrete jungle, the issues of building materials being dumped into the river and tons of sand being stashed away from its actual course bed for constructions have to be addressed.
Is it any wonder that the 100 or so species of birds which used to frequent Puttaparthi have reduced in number? These decorated birds also seem to be avoiding their traditional stopover at Puttaparthi. When it comes to taking some action, there has to be a starting point and that definitely is awareness of the problem. It is time to spread the word and come together for collective, consensual action to preserve this beautiful river.
It is not only a question of an environmental issue - it is a social, cultural and most importantly, historical problem that needs to be solved. And ‘history’ here is referring to ‘His-Story’!
Update-1 on 11th September 2013
After a lot of soul-searching, door-knocking and discussing, a few devotees felt that it was high time to start doing something for the river. The decision was born partly from divine inspiration and partly from human frustration. Divine inspiration is easily understood, but “human frustration” may need some explaining. Here it is:
Every time a grand plan was chalked up, matter taken to the ‘high’ authorities and action sought, hundreds of reasons why the endeavor would be unsuccessful were all that were obtained! Nobody seemed ready to take the first step unless 100% success was guaranteed. But things do not work that way in the world. When you travel in the night, the headlights of the car show only the next 100 meters, not all the way to the destination. But, if one is able to see the next 100 meters throughout, one can surely drive to the destination. One just needs to have the faith that the road ahead will be revealed in time. Thus it was that ‘human frustration’ drove this batch of devotees to sit in the driver’s seat of the Chitravati initiative.
Once the path was chosen and decided, things moved pretty fast. A small group meeting near the banks of chitravathi was held which the volunteers decided on coming on a weekly basis to clean up the river irrespective of the strength of the volunteer force. The intention was to create some sort of an awareness and also offer loving service. There seemed to be some instant success on this front with a local newspaper reporting the same in their Anantapur edition.
A letter that was written
The vice-chairman of PUDA (Puttaparthi Urban Development Authority) pledged his support for the cleanup and told the volunteers to just write to local nagar panchayat and the urban and rural police SI. The letters were written and duly submitted. The devotees then began their shramadaan (voluntary service) in right earnest on the weekend knowing that it is going to be a Herculean task ahead. There is the problem of bodies being burnt in the holy river, garbage being dumped (even the local muncipal tractors do it on the sly to save diesel!), illegal sand-mining (even as we cleaned, tractor loads of sand were being stolen, eroding the river bed) and people defecating. But then, every great effort begins with a small step right?
But small victories have been achieved. At the fag end of the shramadaan, a tractor strealing sand tried to come up to the main road from the river bank. But due to the work of removing all the debris the tractor could not climb up onto the road and so it had to back out , taking a long route instead. This encouraged the volunteers to dig up and work more to ensure that no tractor will be able to come up that way. However, this is a very tiny victory.
A lot of plastic and other junk lie buried 2-3 feet in the soil and the volunteers surely face an uphill task in digging them out.
A major push came as a blessing by nature, Swami’s love (what else can it be?). Swami has said,
“When you have done your best and that is found not enough, then call on Me. I am ever ready to reinforce your effort with My Grace.”
It was not as if we had done our best, but we indeed called out to Swami. And the way Swami helped is unforgettable. On the 10th of September, discussions were on as to where should the immersion ceremony for the idols of Lord Ganesha (after Ganesha Chaturthi) festival be done? The discussion had been provoked because all the immersion lakes and ponds had dried up. A decision had been taken to travel 20kms to Vengalammacheruvu to carry out the immersion. But Swami had other plans.
In what could be considered as the Master’s stroke of blessing two birds at the same time, within the next 16 hours, He poured forth rain like Anantapur had never seen historically! The rain of grace filled the dry bed of river Chitravati to the brim with water! See it for yourselves in these two videos.
River Chitravati in full flow after rains
Works in Progress...
But again, this a only a small victory. It has enthused the volunteers to sincerely work every week, in their own little way. The rains also revealed the extent of wastes and dumping happening in the holy river. The following photos will ensure that in the euphoria of water flowing in the river, the dirt, filth and garbage in the river is not forgotten. In fact, down river, the Chitravati is hardly able to flow. It is forming a lake whose boundaries are garbage, plastic, chicken feathers (from the dozens of meat-shops) on the borders and detergents.
The unexpected bounty, I feel, has come to inspire us to work more, assuring us that when we put efforts, God is there to reward. River Chitravati is definitely Puttaparthi’s heritage. But is is definitely a part of every Sai-devotee’s heart. When you travel in a time-machine to those glorious Chitravati days, you will definitely agree to this.
The co-ordinator for the volunteer brigade is Sri. Gopalakrishna. If anybody is visiting Puttaparthi during a weekend, you can definitely enlist as a volunteer for a one-time shramadaan. Any other suggestions, ideas etc. are also welcome. You can write to ‘Gopal’ at gopal84(dot)vasudevan@gmail(dot)com.
As for me, I am definitely a volunteer and hopefully, my next update here will bring more cheer and divine love 'flowing' to all.
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© 2012 Aravind Balasubramanya